Thailand

Khao San Road has long been like the slutty girl from college you know you should avoid. Half the guys you know have slept with her. She smokes, she’s loud when she gets drunk, she dresses badly, everything taken to excess.

Oh, but she’s always fun…and it’s just so darn easy.

When I first visited Bangkok, Thailand in the early 1990s, Khao San Road was already well-established as the backpacker crossroads of the world. We ended up back there a few more times on our first round-the-world trip and ran into some of the same people each time. It was crazy, crowded, and already derided as a “travel ghetto.” Tuk-tuk driver scams were rampant, the food wasn’t very imaginative, and the cheap guesthouses were nothing to get excited about. It was the place with the greatest density of what travelers wanted and needed though, all within a few minutes walk.

Thailand hotelPretty much all of this is still true, but on a larger scale. It’s now the Khao San Road Area because it has grown like a blob and eaten up several surrounding streets. We stayed at Villa Cha Cha hotel, whose entrance is three blocks away, but the back side of it has a bar and restaurant that’s now in the heart of the action, open 24 hours a day. (Nice hotel, by the way, if you’re a mid-range traveler. We paid around $50 per night for three, with A/C, Wi-Fi, hot showers, fridge, and a nice swimming pool. They let us check in really early too after we flew all the way from the U.S.)

Of course you still have to go through six or eight taxis to find one that will use the meter in this area and yes, you can still buy a fake diploma or student card. You don’t need an ID to buy alcohol and one place even has this fact on all the staff t-shirts.

There are some new developments that seem a bit strange. The massage places now spill into the street: apparently some people don’t mind getting a rubdown lying next to dozens of others while a parade of people walks by. There are more chain restaurants and air conditioned shops. More street stalls jammed into limited real estate.

KSR is a microcosm of what has changed in the travel world in general. The few Asians we used to see before (almost always Japanese) are far more numerous, with Koreans, Chinese, and even Vietnamese backpackers on the move. There are flashpackers trying in vain to move down the crowded cart-filled streets with hard shell rolling suitcases instead of backpacks. You see parties of four all playing with their iPhones instead of talking to each other or meeting the people at the next table. And overall, there’s just more money being spent.

I’m one of those people now, the kind I used to look at as “those tourists” who had more money than time. Now I have three weeks and a bigger budget, so I’m making the most of it. We spent a few nights in an apartment on the Sky Train line off Sukumvit Road, visiting malls and mingling with the crowds staying at Hyatts and Sofitels. But it wasn’t the same. Despite all its flaws, its ugliness, and its sprawling madness, Khao San Road is just, well, more fun. I shouldn’t keep returning to her, but she’s just so easy…

Oh yeah, and you’re a short hop away from all this: